Athens government budget passes without reducing size of police department

The call to defund the police has been heard around the country for weeks now. Thursday night, north Georgia government took a closer look at a plan that would cut the police department in half -- a plan that was not approved for the 2021 budget.

“I feel like ‘defund the police’ doesn’t get at what we’re talking about here," said Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Tim Denson. "Right now, we send police officers into situations that they are not best suited to go into."

Commissioners Denson and Mariah Parker proposed a plan that they say would “reimagine public safety.” It would reduce the size of the police department by 50% over the next 10 years. It would also reinvest those funds into more mental health resources and crisis intervention teams.

The plan drew a lot of attention in the community, with dozens protesting last week and Thursday, calling on the government to delay the vote on its 2021 budget.

After already postponing the vote previously, the Athens-Clarke County mayor and the commission approved the budget Thursday by a margin of 7-2.

Denson and Parker were the two to vote “no.”

“We have a good public safety infrastructure. Our entities work well together, our police department, fire department. We're improving our EMS," Denson said. "But it’s obvious there is a missing integral part there, which is the entity that responds somebody is having a mental health crisis, many resulting in deaths.”

Although the approved budget will not reduce police funding, it will implement parts of their plan by adding a social worker in the public defender’s office and funding a third mental health co-responder team to the police department.

A committee will also be formed to recommend ways to transition some responsibilities from police officers to unarmed trained professionals.

“I’m very hopeful," Denson said. "There are a lot of great things in there that we have included, but I think this just shows we have more work to do.”

The newly approved budget will take effect July 1.